As Navy SEALs bask in the limelight for daring missions, some in the Army are wondering whether the other half of the nation’s counter-terrorism covert warriors — Delta Force — is being upstaged and left in the shadows.
Adm. William H. McRaven, a SEAL who commanded the Joint Special Operations Command when SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, favors his guys over Delta, some say.
“All I’ve heard and observed is that he is obviously pro-SEAL and that explains why Delta has been sidelined,” said a retired Army Green Beret who still conducts special operations as a government contractor.
A spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command, where Adm. McRaven is now the top officer and the second SEAL in a row to lead the force, declined to comment. “There are some units we do not discuss,” he said.
SEAL Team 6 has won heaps of public praise since dispatching the world’s most wanted terrorist in May 2011. Months later, real SEALs starred in an action movie, “Act of Valor.” Later this year, Hollywood will release another SEAL-related film on the hunt for bin Laden.
A SEAL team added to the hype in January by rescuing American hostage Jessica Buchanan from a band of pirates in Somalia.
By comparison, when Delta Force and conventional ground troops hunted down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, found him a spider hole and flew him to Baghdad in a special ops “little bird,” the covert unit received far less media focus and garnered no starring role in a movie.
In fact, the most famous movie involving Delta Force is 2001’s “Black Hawk Down,” which depicted a failed 1993 mission that led to a U.S. retreat from Somalia.
Delta also played the principal role in the painstaking hunt for Iraq’s most violent terrorist leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi. The Bush administration put out few details about how Zarqawi was found in a hideout north of Baghdad, and Delta remained in the shadows.
But the Obama administration provided on background rich detail about the killing of bin Laden and has aided Hollywood in its movie production.
So much information flowed from the administration that two weeks after the raid, Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged leakers to shut up.
“We are close to jeopardizing this precious capability that we have, and we can’t afford to do that,” Adm. Mullen said. “This fight isn’t over. … It’s time to stop talking.”
Retired Army Col. Ken Allard, a career intelligence officer, described Delta Force members as “quiet professionals. Silence is security.”
He said Delta was created in 1979 to often fight alongside conventional forces, as it did in the Saddam hunt.
SEALs generally go on missions alone. Delta’s approach, he said, “simply means they can get more done the quieter they do things.”
“Ever since Delta Force was created, they have been the quintessential shadow forces,” Col. Allard said. “That’s not going to change, even with the recent publicity about the SEALs.
“The SEALs are short-term killers. Delta has a lot of other missions. It shows how well-integrated the Delta Force guys are with the conventional forces. SEALs are compartmented. Delta is not.”
Another former intelligence officer who has worked with Delta in Iraq said one reason the SEALs were given the bin Laden mission was that it fell on their turf.
In Iraq, SEAL Team 6 and other SEAL units primarily carried out missions against insurgent targets in Anbar province, while Delta focused on Baghdad and the north, where Saddam was captured.
In Afghanistan, the command designated the northeastern provinces on the border with Pakistan as SEAL territory. It was from that region that special operations helicopters infiltrated Pakistani airspace to descend on bin Laden’s lair in the garrison town of Abbottabad.
“Since Iraq has been quiet for some time, and Afghanistan more active, I think the SEALs have just gotten a few more high-profile missions,” the retired intelligence officer said. “I guarantee Delta is in a bunch of areas that we are not even hearing about.
“I would suggest that some of the perceived disparity between Delta and the SEALs is due to cultural differences. SEALs like to be seen. They have a great PR machine. Delta, on the other hand, are very quiet and reserved by comparison. They embrace a culture of secrecy more so than the Navy.”
Politics in the picture
“I can’t speculate on which service is ‘in favor,’” said retired Rear Adm. George R. Worthington, at one time the top SEAL. “I suspect Adm. McRaven is sensitive to such comparison but would discount any blatant favoritism. The mission and availability of forces will determine the choice.”
Retired Army Lt. Col. Steve Russell, a battalion commander who teamed with Delta operatives to hunt down Saddam, said the SEALs are victims of the Obama administration’s decision to release mission details in conjunction with making the bin Laden raid a campaign issue.
“The current administration gave out a lot of detail the Department of the Navy had to answer to because it was out in the public,” said Col. Russell, who last year spoke to a Republican leadership conference in New Orleans. “I can’t imagine they would have wanted to put a lot of things out there that caused them problems later.”
Mr. Russell wrote a book about Saddam’s capture, “We Got Him.” He said he was careful not to give away Delta’s manhunting tactics.
“To contrast the hunt and capture of Saddam with the bin Laden killing, President [George W.] Bush was very quick to congratulate the troops and move on,” he said. “I think what we see with the current administration is, it is being used for political leverage.”
In August, Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, charged that the White House was releasing classified information about the bin Laden raid to reporters and to moviemakers.
“Ridiculous,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
“When people, including you in this room, are working on articles, books, documentaries or movies that involve the president, ask to speak to administration officials, we do our best to accommodate them to make sure the facts are correct,” Mr. Carney said. “That is hardly a novel approach to the media. We do not discuss classified information.”
One development is clear. SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force have enjoyed a special place under Presidents Bush and Obama. Both units have increased in size — to several hundred Team 6 members and more than 1,000 Delta Force troops.
Overall, the special operations budget has surged from $6 billion five years ago to more than $10 billion today, according to the Congressional Research Service. Special Operations Command will surpass 60,000 troops next year, as conventional ground troops will shrink by 90,000 in the next five years.